It finally dawned on me what the right’s uber-theory is, their subtext in today’s raucous tug-of-war for the heart and soul of the country. It's straight outa Ayn Rand, with a paranoid tweak from the Bircher-Bagger crowd, and probably best summed up as Individualism vs. Collectivism.
The righties have convinced themselves that the liberal agenda is the creation of a Collectivist state. That’s the queen bee in the bonnet of those little old ladies in tennis shoes channeling Glenn Beck. It’s what underlies all the snarkiness of Hannity and Limbaugh and O’Reilly; it’s behind all the town hall shout-downs and the name-calling; it’s become the very undercurrent of our coarse national discourse - the thesis/antithesis of Individualism vs. Collectivism.
Here’s a taste of where these folks are coming from:
“Collectivism is the root ideology that underlies all totalitarian systems; socialism, communism, fascism, and naziism alike. It holds that the group is superior to the individual, and thus individual rights may be violated with impunity, for the perceived or alleged "common good," "national greatness," or "national security"…” (http://www.nolanchart.com/topic/topiccamp.php?TopicID=77&ArticleID=5211&Camp=Libertarian)
“Modern Liberals promote, advocate, and enforce the centralization of all political power into an all-powerful central government…” (http://www.armchairviews.com/commie.htm)
"Individualism regards man -- every man -- as an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life, a right derived from his nature as a rational being. Individualism holds that a civilized society, or any form of association, cooperation or peaceful co-existence among men, can be achieved only on the basis of the recognition of individual rights -- and that a group, as such, has no rights other than the individual rights of its members." -- Ayn Rand http://freedomkeys.com/... - individualism
“There is no such thing [as “society”] – there are individual men and women, and there are families...” – Margaret Thatcher
"Collectivism holds that the individual has no rights, that his life and work belong to the group (to "society," to the tribe, the state, the nation) and that the group may sacrifice him at its own whim to its own interests. The only way to implement a doctrine of that kind is by means of brute force -- and statism has always been the political corollary of collectivism." -- Ayn Rand http://freedomkeys.com/...
According to this body of thought, anything that smacks of "group-ness," whether it’s unions, the public option, school lunches, social security, community organizing, even food stamps, is nothing less than a Trojan Horse sneaking the scourge of Collectivism into our shining city on the hill.
That's the underlying rationale (or irrationale, depending on your political persuasion) of all the fuss since Obama got elected; the whole race issue just put a turbo-charger on this engine of ugly. People actually believe this stuff. Lots of people. And they vote. And they’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid and asking for seconds.
In the Fifties, it was the John Birch Society that kept paranoid politics alive in America. See the landmark 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” It could have been written last month. http://www.kenrahn.com/...
The conservative lion William F. Buckley finally wrote off the Birchers as a lunatic fringe group when President Eisenhower’s brother was accused in an open letter penned by a Bircher of being a communist agent who was “running” his brother Ike. The society promptly fell into disfavor. But not completely. The dream, as they say, is still alive. It lives on in the philosophical underpinnings of the Libertarian movement, and more stridently through the Tea Party.
The Conspiracy Thickens: Industrialist Fred C. Koch (Koch Industries) was a principal founder of the John Birch Society, named in honor of Christian missionary and American intelligence officer John Birch, who was tortured and executed in Communist China in 1945. The Birchers considered Birch to be the first hero of the Cold War. Their basic rap was that the greatest danger to America was Collectivism.
They believed that both the U.S. and Soviet government were secretly controlled by the same cabal of greedy bankers, internationalists, and politicians - the whole Trilateral Commission / Bilderberger / New World Order rant, with a bit of Masonic / Illuminati / Papist stuff thrown in there just for fun. What I like to call the “Unified Conspiracy Theory.”
According to theory, fluoridation of the water supply was a commie plot to lower libido and control the population, the U.S. desperately needed to get out of the U.N., and last but not least, liberals were actively and intentionally ushering in a Collectivist state with their wicked, wicked ways.
I used the past tense in relaying all the above, but the fact is they’ve been here all along, and are lately enjoying a renaissance. The Glenn Beck crowd and the Birthers and the Tenthers (the Tenth Amendment “states rights” / sovereignty crowd) and the Tea Partyers, though they may squabble over details from time to time, are all on the same basic Bircher bandwagon - hence the term “Bircher-Bagger.”
In fact, the John Birch Society was one of the sponsors of this year’s conservative confab, the CPAC convention, jocularly known as “the convention with the fringe on the top” because in conservative circles these days, the fringe has top billing. This is what Dana Milbank reported in the Washington Post about Glenn Beck’s keynote speech at the event:
“… In an apparent reference to John McCain, Beck condemned a "guy in the Republican Party who says his favorite president is Theodore Roosevelt." He then read disapprovingly the Roosevelt quote that ‘… we grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used . . . so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community…’ “Is this what the Republican Party stands for?" Beck demanded. He was answered with boos and cries of "no!" [Beck then told the crowd:] "It's big government, it's a socialist utopia and we need to address it as if it is a cancer"…”
Let me get this straight: If a rich man’s gain is “honorably obtained” and “well used” and is “of benefit to his community,” then that’s a big government calamity, a sure-fire road to perdition, and a carcinogenic socialist utopia.
Really? Do tell. And we should want people who think like this to be our national leaders because…?
Follow The Money: Fred C. Koch’s billionaire sons David and Charles (the 9th richest men in America) currently fund, among many other things, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Center for Public Integrity, Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks, and Americans for Prosperity, the astroturf organization that sent a busload of crazy around the country in the summer of 2009, indoctrinating crowds in small town America about death panels and the “liberal agenda” to control every aspect of our lives. (Lions and tigers and bears, oh my…!)
Koch Industries has been described as the biggest oil company you’ve never heard of. They’re essentially a carbon industry – wood, paper, oil, coal, and natural gas. Not real big fans of the Global Warming crowd. They funded the “Hot Air Tour” to inform the nation that the science on global warming is a socialist plot, craftily devised over some 30-odd years by an international cabal of liberal scientists to suck money out of your pocket and control your life. A New World Order, if you will, engineered by nerds.
Imagine! Thousands of PhDs quietly scheming for decades in smoke-filled labs, devising a global plan for Collectivist control… and the best con job that these big brains could come up with was a secular religion about melting glaciers and cow farts. Makes sense to me.
Prime Time Crazy: My personal suspicion is that back when he was drinking, Glenn Beck had a moment of clarity late one night when he caught “A Face In The Crowd” on TV. It’s a hell of a good film with a masterful performance by Andy Griffith, about Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a beguiling, propagandizing cornpone huckster who rockets to national prominence with his own radio show, and then his own TV show, dabbling as a political consultant in his spare time. In the final reel, Lonesome Rhodes’ popularity evaporates one fateful night when his microphone is left on, and his national TV audience finally discovers what he really thinks of them.
I’m guessing that Beck saw the film and had a whopper of an epiphany, finally realizing what he wanted to do with his life, and just how to pull it off. The trick, of course, was to avoid playing out the last reel for as long as possible. And so far, so good – his show is a monster hit, despite losing more than one hundred sponsors over his accusations of racism against Obama.
What most of his fans don’t quite appreciate is that the primary philosophical touchstone of “Lonesome Rhodes” Beck is the collected works of Cleon Skousen, a racist piece of work from Beck’s home state of Utah. Back in the Fifties, the retired chief of police of Salt Lake City gained notoriety through his writings as a rabid anti-Communist crank along the lines of Senator Joe McCarthy. Skousen’s essays became one of the chief inspirations of Bircher orthodoxy.
This underground stream of populist history, paranoid propaganda, and philosophy lite is broadcast by Fox and hundreds of other partisan rabble-rousers on a daily basis, and promoted by astroturfing bus tours sponsored by behind-the-scenes extremist billionaires. It explains why the Bircher-Baggers have been tossing off terms like Nazi, Socialist, Communist, Fascist, Statist, Maoist, and Marxist interchangeably, without seeming to care that they're contradicting themselves. Because according to their uber-theory, they’re actually not. Because on the Ayn Rand Right (which they belong to, whether they know it or not) all these -isms are of the exact same stripe – Collectivism.
Collectivism is in diametric contrast to the “atomistic” worldview of the Individualist, who enjoys the self-perception of being a rational, separate and distinct “atom,” not trapped into some stultifying Collectivist molecule with other, lesser atoms – the hoi polloi whom Ayn Rand referred to as “the many and the petty and the small.” You know - Hicks. Rubes. The mob. The Other. The unwashed masses. Welfare queens. Moochers and feeloaders and nanny state losers. Those people...
Atom Man is a Rugged Individualist of the New Frontier, a cowboy / single-combat warrior / greed-is-good / stark raving capitalist. He wants the lyrics to “My Way” chiseled on his gravestone. He’s the man, and a self-made one at that. For a hilarious send-up of this fatuous sort of self-preening, see the viral essay “Joe the Republican”: http://home.comcast.net/...
Come to think of it, the Uber-Theory may shed light on whatever happened to the old chestnut “There is no ‘I’ in teamwork.” It may also explain why the Army chose "An Army of One" as a motto. (Although it doesn't explain why the Air Force chose "Above All" as a motto - the German translation of which is Uber Alles. But anyway, back to our rant...)
The Collectivism / Individualism dichotomy underlies everything that Glenn Beck is pushing, and it underlies the paranoia systematically promoted on Fox. And it's working because most Americans are under-informed, over-stimulated, behind the eight ball, angry, and scared. Particularly if they watch Fox. Because for the last ten years, Fox has been the Ministry of Truthiness for the millions of people who eventually formed the Tea Party. So much so that it would be far more accurate to call it the Fox Party.
The Uber-Theory explains why they loathe Moore and Gore (are we going to be a we society or a me society? / global warming is everyone's responsibility) and this explains why Barak Hussein Obama is an uppity, fancy-pants, community organizing, redistribute-the-wealth, stealth Muslim, racist, Communist, Marxist, Fascist, Maoist, magic-negro Socialist. From the great state of Kenya.
Check out this video clip:
The audio quality sucks, but the speaker and his rowdy audience prove my point. It’s dismaying, but also illuminating. Phrases like "we're all in this together" and "yes we can" set off alarms in these people. Klaxons, even. With klieg lights. It’s that whole "we" thing. The way they see it, “we” is a four-letter word.
Obama sealed his fate with these people during the 2008 campaign, jocularly tossing off a remark to Joe the Plumber about taxes as a way to “redistribute the wealth.” Barak Hussein Obama blew the dog whistle, and that was that. His cover was blown – a Collectivist in Brooks Brothers clothing, captured on videotape! Never mind that any form of taxation is, by definition, wealth redistribution. (Don’t get these people started about taxes. There was a pilot in Austin who could tell you about taxes…)
What I find particularly striking is how the righties take their fear-mongering to such an absolutist extreme. “Collectivism holds that the individual has no rights…” “… [Collectivism] holds that the group is superior to the individual, and thus individual rights may be violated with impunity…” “… the centralization of all political power into an all-powerful government…”
Here we have a Rand-y crowd of Libertarians exalting Individualism as a supreme moral imperative, while projecting a reverse image of their own imbalanced lives onto their political foes, by condemning anyone who even glances leftward of intentionally trying to transform the entire country into a Collectivist commune.
In short, they are extremists who have convinced themselves that their philosophical counterparts are as extreme as they are.
They embrace a Manichean worldview in which the duality of good and evil is clearly defined, and in which there are no shades of grey, perceived or allowed. Any notion that someone might have a degree of responsibility or culpability or connection or obligation towards their fellow citizens is whipped into a paranoid froth about how liberals are trying to “ram down our throats" the idea that the group is all and the individual is nothing.
I ask you - have you ever met anyone who has seriously voiced, or even implied, such absolutist, Collectivist claptrap? Whether by a slip of the tongue under drunk or argumentative circumstances, or in a fit of rage against the machine, or whatever? Neither have I.
But the Bircher-Baggers have, and they see a liberal lurking behind every tree, itching to promote their agenda. There used to be a commie under every rock, and now there’s a liberal behind every tree. Same delusion, different day. And lately, they’ve been mainstreaming the crazy.
What I wonder is, how can these Individualist / Libertarian / Bircher-Baggers even call themselves Christians? It's patently obvious that to their way of thinking, the notion that you are your brother's keeper is not only soul poison but a sucker's game, a bunch of tree-hugging hippie crap, and just… well, just downright un-American.
How do they get along with their spouses? Isn't marriage all about give and take and concessions and compromise, and foregoing a degree of freedom and individuality as a trade-off for the advantages of companionship and support and teamwork?
Individualism is the pathological extreme of a juvenile mindset promoted by Ayn Rand, which she proudly called Selfishness (with a capital S, mind you…) and which she explicitly championed in several books and essays. Nathanial Branden and Alan Greenspan gave it voice in the Fifties and Sixties, Gordon Gekko gave it voice in the Eighties, and Fox and Fiends give it voice today.
To be blunt, the Individualism they’re selling to the American heartland is a paranoid phobia, an anti-social disease that views any degree of societal connection, commitment, responsibility or obligation strictly in terms of bondage, coercion, and slavery. All this fear-mongering generates a knee-jerk response pattern that I call “political koyaanisqatsi” - public life out of balance.
For example, they’ll tell you that health care isn’t a right, because deeming it a right for one person obligates another person to provide the care... Well, actually, that particular part of their sales pitch happens to be true. (In the preamble to the Bill of Rights, it says that the goal is to promote the general welfare, not provide for the general welfare.) But what they don’t then bother to explain (or believe) is that while health care isn’t a right, it is a moral obligation that we have to our fellows, particularly if we have the ways and means to provide it - which we do. And because we do, it is our moral obligation to find a way to deliver that care without seriously disrupting or tanking the entire system.
Which is precisely what the health care debate should be about – how to do it, not if should we do it. Instead, the Bircher-Baggers spent August of 2009 disrupting town hall meetings that were convened to discuss the issue. Some even brought along their shooting irons, just so the other folks could feel right at home chewing the fat with their neighbors about such a thorny subject like health care - which is essentially about matters of life and death. (Say, fellas, when you all get raptured, can I have your guns?)
What's missing from the thought process of these people is the concept of degree, another sign that it’s a phobia. If your phobia is snakes, a garden hose lying on the lawn is enough to send you into a tizzy. Collectivism is the idea that the group is everything and the individual is nothing. Individualism is the mirror opposite. Both are equally nutty. All or nothing is an extremist, purist point of view, which is by definition a fringe notion. The problem is, the fringe on the right has been mainstreamed.
As I see it, a “rational being” (as Ayn Rand called Man) seeks to survive, thrive, and prosper simultaneously as an individual, a member of a family or a relationship, a member of a group, a member of society, a member of the human race, and so on. Expanding circles of influence, identity, belonging, responsibility, commitment, etc. That whole ripples in a pond, concentric circles thing. The Russian Doll Theory of Life.
The trick of living a moral life is to balance the tug-of-war between all of these equally valid, and often competing, spheres of life and livingness. Simultaneously. One does not preclude or extinguish or overwhelm the other. What Ayn Rand and the Libertarians and their angry acolytes have done is set up a false choice between absolute Individualism and absolute Collectivism. In reality, there is no all or nothing in the broad spectrum of life. It’s all shades of grey. But colorful.
The old saw about ethics being the greatest good for the greatest number, would, I think, include the notion of not just the greatest good for the greatest number of people, but the greatest good for the greatest number of these spheres of interest as well. And not only for the individual making the decision, but also for anyone their actions might effect.
That's tricky stuff. It's all interwoven (we're all in this together; if we don’t hang together, we shall all hang separately; we are the world), and that's probably why ethical choices are sometimes so damn hard to calculate.
Ethics is all about the choices we make, and since none of us operate in a vacuum, those choices almost always involve a due consideration for the other guy. We are, in fact, all in this together – small world, big planet. And despite what you see on “Survivor” and despite what the masters of the universe on Wall Street will tell you, Darwin’s concept of survival of the fittest was mainly about the competition between species, rather than between the individuals within a species. Individual animals (including Man) survive largely by cooperating with their fellows, rather than by solely competing with them.
Cooperation, democracy, sharing, reciprocity, and the rudiments of justice (the recognition of fairness, thievery, hoarding, bullying, etc.) are encoded into every animal’s DNA. These innate notions influenced the social basis of everything from a herd of mastodons to a clan of Cro-Magnons, to eventually become man’s societal and religious morals, in many cases codified into law.
God may have created Man, but in order to secure his inalienable rights, it is Man that creates (“institutes”) governments. And since governments are instituted by Man, they derive their just powers from the consent of the governed - despite what Antonin Scalia would have you believe. Taking a cue from the Book of Romans, Scalia believes that government ultimately derives its powers from God. That was the same justification behind the medieval notion of the “divine right of kings.” As I recall, we fought a revolution over nonsense like that. See his essay “God’s Justice – And Ours”: http://www.prisonerlife.com/...
We are, by our very nature, connected to our fellows. Even to people like Ayn Rand and Glenn Beck, whether they - or we - like it or not. Administering, adjudicating, and legislating the extent of that connection is what government is all about. The healthy debate between left and right has always been about how to best strike a balance between the interests of the individual and the interests of his fellows. Instead, the debate has devolved into whether our fellows are our fellows, of if we’re really all just strangers on the road to nowhere.
It may come as no surprise to you that a lot of righties think that all the foregoing is a bunch of dangerously deranged mush-headed nonsense, and way too complicated to boot. So they make it easy on themselves and jettison every consideration that doesn't directly benefit their own glorious and intensely interesting selves. Greed is good. I'm a free being. Don't tread on me. Don't fence me in. Why should I pay for someone else's health care? I gotta be me. I'm special. Every man for himself. I got mine, you get yours. As a matter of fact, I do own the damn road.
But the truth is, whether some of us act like it or not, Man is a naturally social being. Individualism and Collectivism are the pathological extremes of only two of Man’s many overlapping and intricately woven motivations. And any single motivation - even an entirely sane and noble one - that is hobby-horsed to the exclusion of all others is by definition unbalanced, and as a direct consequence harmful to the state of the union.
Union… there’s that Collectivist concept rearing its ugly head again. And one of the alarming things about this Bircher-Bagger prairie fire (aside from the fact that a prairie fire is by definition uncontrollable) is that a lot of people in this country actually think it’s high time for another rebellion.
Some are even threatening secession, and if it comes right down to it, dagnabbit, outright civil war. Several state legislatures have recently passed sovereignty bills. Surveys consistently show that Bircher-Bagger attitudes poll much more strongly in the Old South, and indeed, there’s a distinct tinge of Neo-Confederacy in their approach to these matters. The body of thought known as states’ rights, despite its many valid points, has also long been used as code for Jim Crow.
The Neo-Confederacy / Dixiecrat strain of Republican politics (and virtually all Tea Partyers, by survey, would vote Republican in a two-party race) has always had a seat at the conservative table. Nixon won the south with his “southern strategy,” which pushed the button of states’ rights in the wake of LBJ’s Civil Rights Act and the subsequent forced integration of public schools. Ronald Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign in the tiny backwater town of Philadelphia, Mississippi with a rousing speech about states’ rights.
Why, of all the places in this great country of ours, did Reagan choose to start there? It’s no small coincidence that Philadelphia, Mississippi was the same wide spot in the road that gained national notoriety years earlier for the racist cop slaying of three now-famous civil rights activists - Chaney, Schwerener, and Goodman. Kinda makes you wanna go hmmmm……
When Barak Obama was born, it was illegal in the state of Virginia (the home state of Robert E. Lee) for a black man to marry a white woman - even though (or, perhaps, because) the Union soldiers who fought Lee’s army were buried at Arlington National Cemetery, which actually used to be Robert E. Lee’s front lawn. And now, horror of horrors, we have the spawn of an interracial marriage occupying the White House, right across the damn river! To a lot of otherwise good and decent folks, that just don’t seem right, somehow.
The connection we have to our fellow citizens may be uncomfortable or irksome at times, and may seem more like a burden than a benefit, but the connection exists, and denigrating it does a grave disservice to both sides of the aisle. Denying it outright is a pathology. If there’s a social cancer in the body politic, Mr. Beck, that’s it right there.
No wonder the righties had a conniption fit over Obama's use of the word empathy. To them, empathy is what Collectivists feel. If you have empathy, the other person is real and has value, and you can’t ignore life's impact on them or your impact on them. As I pointed out to my friends when the whole Sotomayor / empathy thing blew up in the national press, any psychologist will tell you that the basic definition of a sociopath is someone who is totally lacking in empathy. So by very definition, the righties wanted a sociopath on the Supreme Court. (Don’t we have enough already?)
Speaking of which, all this throws an interesting light on the recent Supreme Court decision regarding the corporate funding of elections. According to Thom Hartmann, Justice Roberts' logic (much like Ayn Rand’s logic) was that since corporations are collections of individuals, the rights of the members are thus conferred intact to the corporation.
To reiterate: “…peaceful co-existence among men can be achieved only on the basis of the recognition of individual rights -- and that a group, as such, has no rights other than the individual rights of its members." -- Ayn Rand
The corporation therefore doesn't really exist as a thing-in-itself. Groups, society, etc. are apparently just Collectivist fairy tales. Roberts' extrapolation is that corporations can be given individual rights not because they're individuals - since groups don't actually exist in fact - but because this fictitious collective called a corporation is made up of individuals, each of whom do have rights.
Reductio ad Absurdum lightning round:
What individual rights do individuals retain on company time?
If money is speech, how can John Q. Public hope to be heard when Exxon/Mobil or Goldman Sachs weighs in on a candidate?
If corporations have personhood, can they vote when they turn eighteen? Or are they just three-fifths of a person?
Do corporations have the right to keep and bear arms, or do they have to out-source all the fun stuff to Blackwater?
If individual rights are the only valid rights, and if multi-billion dollar corporations have been granted those self-same rights, then didn’t all the Rugged Individualists who cheered this decision just shoot themselves in the Collective foot?
© 2010 Michael Sean Conley